With the upcoming Lion King release, Disney will have completed the last live action remake of my childhood animation trilogy (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast). So since I’ve done posts on the other two, why not bring it home?
Lion King is a lush, vibrant, but also somewhat dark film compared to the other staples of the Disney library. While Circle of Life and Can’t Wait to Be King are fun and moving spectacles, they are juxtaposed against tense, scary, and ultimately heart breaking moments of Simba trapped in a stampede and subsequent death of his father, Mufasa. Shattered, alone, and believing the disaster was his fault, Simba is gaslit by his evil uncle Scar and told to run away.
Running for his life, Simba eventually evades the murderous hyenas and lands in the desert, exhausted and ready to die. Fortunately he is found by two unlikely friends, Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog, who take Simba under their wing and nurse him back to health. Over the next song/time lapse montage, Simba grows into maturity, embracing a life of no worries (Hakuna Matata). But in doing so, must turn his back on some of the most cherished lessons imparted by his father and culture. In effect, Simba didn’t just run from his home, he ran from himself.
Eventually Simba is discovered by Nala, a lioness from his home, and finally has to face the responsibility he has been running from. It throws him into identity crisis, torn between the ideas he grew up with and the life he knows now. Yada yada yada… a baboon ushers him into a vision of his father and he’s left with the departing words, “Remember who you are.”
With that, Simba realizes he must come home and confront his uncle Scar, save Pride Rock from darkness it has fallen into, and become king.
What’s Jewish about that?
Aside from clear parallels to the Moses story, one might think the lesson to be learned is to not run from yourself or your problems. That avoiding responsibility only makes things worse. Though those are certainly lessons to live by, I think there’s something going deeper on here.
There is a common practice of “going off to find yourself.” Whether that is backpacking around Europe or volunteering for the Peace Corps, there seems to be a drive to free oneself from the curated life a person lives before they enter adulthood. Perhaps as an effort to attain a better understanding of themselves. And though that can be an enlightening experience, there is an essential prerequisite.
When Simba encounters Timon and Pumbaa, he is taught a way of life that is counter to his nature. Where his father insisted that as king he will have to take his place in the great circle of life, Timon and Pumbaa emphasize a life of no responsibility. A lion who thrives on eating meat is pressured into a diet of bugs. And when Simba opens up about how he was once told the stars are the “great kings of the past looking down on us”, surely his only remaining connection to his dead father, he is laughed at. This hurls Simba into his identity crisis.
The lesson being that if one goes off seeking new directions without fully understanding themselves, they can be taken way off course. Many disconnected Jews have found connection and enlightenment in the philosophies of Buddhism, not realizing that those very ideas are found in Judaism.
Product of our Environment
As I said above, there is certainly something to getting away from the world we’ve always lived in. So many of our values and opinions are heavily influenced by the society around us. How much of what we believe have we actually gone out and found clarity for ourselves?
Well isn’t that the whole point of going out to find yourself? Sure. But with out clarity about what you think you know, you’ll be vulnerable to being taken in directions that feel good, but may not actually be true or good. That’s why before stepping out and seeing the world, you should identify what you think you know about the world and categorize them in one of the four following ways. (Virtually all of this is from Rabbi Noach Weinberg.)
- Knowledge – Is this something which I can say beyond a reasonable doubt is true?
- Belief – Is this something which I can say is true, but I do have some reasonable doubts?
- Faith – Is this something I may not have much evidence at all for, but I want or need it to be true?
- Socialization – Is this something I know to be true because I investigated it or because the world I live in says it to be so?
When you understand what your knowledge base is and why you believe it, it allows you to critically analyze new ideas and influences objectively, minimizing the chance of manipulation. As I said above, there is something about getting away from the society so you can assess what your beliefs are without that social influence. However if you just jump from one society to another without a bedrock of clarity, you may end up jumping from one ideology to the next rather than getting closer to truth.
The Great Circle of Life
Simba ultimately gets his clarity from the ghostly vision of his father. Very few of us are so lucky to have our solutions handed to us so sublimely. We may have rejected many of the notions taught to us in our childhood or simply just not have understood the magnitude of their meaning. Just look at how as a cub, Simba “just can’t wait to be king” while Lion Simba can’t handle that responsibility. But to sit down and clarify those values outside the influence of peers, the media, charismatic leaders, or other pressures, we may save ourselves a few miles of wandering and not just remember but truly discover who we really are.